European Society for Translation Studies

“Scientific facts”

“Scientific facts”
D. Gile, January 22, 2005

Is there anything special about “facts” as they are produced by science (in the sense of the ESP as explained in previous contributions on this page), as opposed to facts collected, presented or asserted outside of science? Are they more accurate, more reliable, more comprehensive in covering a given portion of reality, say translation process, translation quality, the translators’ personality, etc.? Sometimes they are, if the same phenomenon has been the object of scientific enquiry by many scientists for a long time. However, this is not necessarily the case. Three reasons are given here by way of illustration:

When scientists start investigating a phenomenon, they often have a theory which they seek to prove. This may (inter alia) make them sensitive to some parts of reality and less so to others. Thus, they may misinterpret reality and “see” facts where other scientists with different theories would “see” other facts.

Another reason why scientific “facts” are not always reliable is the limited quality of tools used to collect them, be they physical tools (optical, electronic or otherwise) or intellectual tools such as observation grids, mathematical calculation methods, etc.

Thirdly, science is systematic, and may therefore look at specific parts of the phenomenon under study gradually rather than study it holistically. It may therefore take a lot of time before it covers all its important facets. In contrast, non-scientists who are in daily contact with the phenomenon may have deep intuitive knowledge of the same facets.

If so, why should one look to science to provide facts to explore the world or provide applications? The one essential advantage of science in this respect appears in the long term. Scientific facts are produced in compliance (to the best possible extent) with scientific norms that seek to reduce misperceptions and to correct errors and distortions through collective efforts, including criticism. Through this self-correction process, the factual basis collected and published in the literature eventually becomes increasingly accurate and reliable, whereas non-scientific facts may remain at the same level of reliability for a very long time. However, in order for the process to take its appropriate course, it is important that scientific norms be complied with.